Reason and the Soul: Cicero on human nature

Reason and the Soul: Cicero on human nature November 17, 2017

As I continue teaching through Cicero (see my previous post for more on that), I’m regularly struck by how much Cicero will get right, only to misfire at the last minute. I know, I know, he’s a pagan writer and we can’t expect him to know everything. Still…

The past couple of weeks we’ve covered Books 1-3 of the Tusculan Disputations (recently translated in part here), and in the second Disputation on the topic of pain, Cicero argues that  the human soul

“is divided into two parts, and one of these partakes of reason, while the other does not. Therefore when we receive the instruction to be masters of ourselves, we are being instructed that reason should control recklessness.” (47)

So on the one hand we have an element in us that is rational, and on the other an element that is irrational. Cicero argues that what we ought to do in order to properly endure pain by placing reason in command of the irrational parts of our nature.

“And this rule that is laid down for pain has a wider scope: all things, not just pain, should be resisted with a similar mental tension. Anger blazes up, lust is aroused: we must seek refuge in the same citadel and take up the same weapons.” (58)

I do think that Cicero is on to something here, not just with pain but with every part of our lives. When something happens to us and we have to respond in some way, we can respond rationally or we can respond… well, “irrationally” probably isn’t quite the right way to put it. Perhaps “emotionally” is a better phrasing. We will either respond with reason directing the emotions or with the emotions commanding reason.

While I don’t agree with everything Cicero says here, again I think this is worth weighing and has some value relevant to our discussions about human nature and virtue. And yet, I think Cicero also misses the mark a bit. Let’s grant the argument that our two fundamental options are to respond rationally or irrationally. Of course, those two options do not tie us down to a specific course of action–in fact, two people may in fact perform exactly the same action in response to a given stimulus, and yet one person is driven to that action by reason and the other by an emotional impulse. Still, Cicero’s point is a good one–our motivation is what counts.

Okay, granting all of that, how is Cicero wrong? As with all of the ancients (and, to some extent, as with some of the Medieval philosophers who follow too closely with their Classical predecessors), Cicero’s default assumption is that reason is always correct and that if only we can somehow put it in charge we’ll be living the life of virtue. On the contrary, the Bible teaches that although we were created in God’s image, the effects of the fall are such that every part of us, including our reason, is now tainted by sin. That’s not to say we’re all always as bad as we could be; it’s just to say that regardless of whether we’re driven by our emotions or by our reason, we are going to be integrating sin in our actions.

Now at this point the Gospel has good news, and we can be changed and regenerated by the work of Christ on the cross. But that gets us beyond the immediate context of the Cicero quote. Here, it is just sufficient to note that reason and emotion alike are insufficient for achieving the life of virtue that the ancients so desired.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO.

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